Small, timid moves are being taken by the United States and Iran to reduce tensions.

A probable prisoner exchange agreement and Iran’s slightly slower rate of uranium enrichment are seen by experts as signals of a thaw in relations.
Although there are more and more signs that Iran and the US have de-escalated tensions in recent weeks and months, the de-escalation is still in its early stages and is susceptible to failure.

Indications of a move away from conflict include Iran’s slightly slower rate of uranium enrichment, a decrease in attacks by Iranian-backed groups on American forces in Iraq and Syria, an increase in oil exports from Iran, and a prisoner exchange deal that is reportedly nearing completion, according to Western officials and regional analysts.

It’s unclear where this will ultimately lead, even if it holds, according to Eric Brewer, deputy vice president at the Nuclear The threat Initiative, a think tank, and a former American intelligence official who performed on nuclear nonproliferation. “There appears to be some restricted tentative de-escalation,” he said.

Two sources familiar with the situation said that the relative thaw, however small and fragile, appears to be the outcome of a deal between the two countries intended to avert a crisis in the upcoming months while keeping the door open to potential conversations over Iran’s nuclear program. Such a deal provides time for the White House and prevents a potential conflict during the 2024 presidential election campaign.

According to analysts and former U.S. officials, it gives Tehran a break from more extensive sanctions and the ability to focus on its domestic issues.

The United States has stated again and time again that there is no “deal” between the two governments. Any official deal would be in violation of a U.S. law that mandates that Congress must approve any new agreement with Iran. Indirect negotiations intended to prevent a future confrontation have already been covered by NBC News and other media.

The decrease in attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-backed militia, which in the past forced the Biden administration to launch airstrikes, is one indication of the thawing of tensions between the two rivals.

According to Michael Knights, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who closely monitors the Iranian-backed militias, “they have slowed down a lot.” These days, they don’t confront us directly too often.

Reporters were informed last month by Maj. Gen. Matthew McFarlane, who at the time was in charge of U.S.-led troops in Iraq and Syria, that there had been no strikes by militias supported by Iran for 110 days in Syria and 14 months in Iraq.

Tehran has decided to slightly slow down its work on nuclear enrichment as part of Iran’s nuclear program, even though its stockpile of fissile nuclear material is still growing.

Iran is slowing down the rate at which it is enriching uranium to 60% purity, just a step away from the 90% grade required to produce nuclear bombs, according to two people familiar with an IAEA study. Brewer and others claimed that while the action sends a political message, it makes no headway in preventing Iran from developing an atomic bomb.

According to experts, Iran currently possesses a stockpile of uranium enriched to 20%, which could be used to produce even more nuclear bombs, and enough near-weapons-grade uranium to manufacture about three of them.

From the perspective of nuclear risk, nothing has changed, according to Henry Rome of the Washington Institute. Iran is “very comfortable and adept at turning the dials down in some ways and pushing them up in other ways to accomplish a political end while the general course of the program is still undiminished,” according to the report.

Iran continues to suffer from U.S. sanctions, but despite this, Tehran has increased its oil exports this year, reaching an estimated 1.85 million barrels per day in August. Iran’s economy is being supported by oil money, which is mostly the consequence of exports to China and other clients in Asia. The Biden administration has come under fire in Washington for allegedly softening the enforcement of oil sanctions in an effort to defuse tensions with Iran.

One incident in the congested Strait of Hormuz, a key route for oil exports and international trade, could set off a new crisis with Iran and put an end to any hope of a temporary easing of tensions.

Regarding the security of oil supplies in the Persian Gulf, notably whether American authorities will keep ordering the seizure of vessels reportedly carrying Iranian oil that has been smuggled, it is still unclear whether Washington and Tehran have made any formal guarantees. In the past, when the United States has made seizures, Iran has retaliated by detaining or provoking vessels in the Persian Gulf.

“The maritime dimension doesn’t seem to be included in this understanding,” said Ali Vaez of the think tank International Crisis Group. “That could be the tension that topples this whole thing.”

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